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What Hollywood Needs to Learn from the Creative Disappointment of ‘Jurassic World: Dominion’

Double Take: Is there something to be learned from this latest dip into the stretched-thin world of IP, "tennis ball tension," and "Spielberg porn"?

“Jurassic World: Dominion”

Universal Pictures

This past weekend saw the release of Colin Trevorrow’s final chapter in the “Jurassic World” trilogy. While the film earned nearly $150 million at the domestic box office this weekend, reviews weren’t kind (including IndieWire’s own) and the film currently sits at a dismal 30 percent on Rotten Tomatoes (the lowest of any film in this trilogy or the previous one). While the return of the original trilogy’s core trio delighted plenty of audience members, fans and critics alike balked at the film’s convoluted story, its resistance to digging into more dino-centric action, and a truly bizarre choice to make some other creepy animal its main baddie. 

Both IndieWire executive editor and VP of editorial strategy Eric Kohn and executive editor, film Kate Erbland emerged from the latest jaunt to the underworld of dino DNA gone wild feeling increasingly worried about the current state of blockbusters. But is there something to be learned from this latest dip into the stretched-thin world of IP, “tennis ball tension,” and “Spielberg porn”?

ERIC KOHN: There’s an excellent new movie in theaters that confronts difficult questions about what happens when humankind exploits technology to change the natural course of evolution. It’s called “Crimes of the Future,” and everyone should see it. And then there’s “Jurassic World: Dominion,” a movie that reduces those same questions to blockbuster putty of the worst kind.

I know we agree with the general consensus that “Dominion” is a dud, the worst entry in the second trilogy of a franchise that never came close to matching the appeal of the original “Jurassic Park.” Director Colin Trevorrow has assembled an ambitious ensemble of new and old faces to weave together nearly 30 years of dinosaur survival stories, the result is a mess of ridiculous plot twists and cheeky fan service with an overabundance of monster movie CGI.

The failings of “Dominion” shouldn’t come as a surprise. All three entries of the “Jurassic World” trilogy swap awe for kitsch and make the original Steven Spielberg movie look downright subtle. To me, however, this outcome is also a historic inevitability for a few reasons. A decade ago, Trevorrow was among the notable Sundance breakouts catapulted the low-budget arena to the studios after a single well-received feature, the quirky Mark Duplass time travel comedy “Safety Not Guaranteed.”

“Jurassic World: Dominion”

Universal Pictures

I have lambasted this tendency many times over the years, because most filmmakers aren’t Taika Waititi and don’t flourish creatively within the confines of the studio system. Trevorrow may not have flourished creatively anywhere, judging by his confounding “Jurassic World” follow-up “The Book of Henry,” and a parting with Lucasfilm over a gig to direct the third “Star Wars” movie. But “Safety Not Guaranteed” remains a sweet and innovative genre blend that in theory could have led to further original riffs on existing storytelling tropes.

But that impulse was never going to blossom within the context of the “Jurassic World” franchise.

Though J.A. Bayona’s “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” at least upped the ante for outrageous action sequences, overall, you could probably invent a more cohesive franchise cash-grab with magnetic poetry. Clones, bioweapons, theme parks, oh my! “Dominion” is overflowing with attempts to rejuvenate the ideas of the original, lacing it all together with obvious callbacks to Spielberg’s direction that reduce it to an algorithm.

And that includes the return of mighty dino-fighting trio Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, and of course Laura Dern, who would work wonders on a podcast together but here look as puzzled to be wandering around a cheap imitation of “Jurassic Park” as we are. Then again, Goldblum’s Dr. Ian Malcolm has cashed in on his fame that came out of the first “Jurassic Park” fiasco, which is probably on-target self-criticism by this movie even if it wasn’t intended this way.

Let’s find a constructive way through this. What’s your take on the failings of “Dominion”? Has the writing been on the compound walls all this time or were you expecting better?

KATE ERBLAND: More than anything, I walked away from “Jurassic World: Dominion” feeling depressed. I’m an infamously enthusiastic movie-goer, just as excited about the possibilities of a new Marvel joint or the latest film from Jane Campion, and while I’ve seen, understood, and acknowledged that bone-deep “is this what movies are now?” feeling that many other film fans have experienced through the past few years of the studio-sanctioned, spreadsheet-created, cookie-cutter franchise boom, I’ve never quite felt it so acutely.

“Jurassic World: Dominion” made me sad, because it’s stuffed to the brim with all the worst tendencies of blockbuster filmmaking: endless callbacks, dumb-bunny winks, moments that seem to hold specifically for an audience to cheer or at least sigh “I recognize that reference,” made all the worse by occasional good ideas and intermittently interesting questions.

I might have felt better about the entire thing if the whole movie was such a bomb, but again, there’s some good stuff here — when you see an animatronic dinosaur, your brain knows it, recognizes it as somehow “real,” delights in it! But the CGI? Call it tennis ball tension, because I am sick to death of watching massive set pieces in which you just know the stars are doing nothing but reacting to tennis balls on poles. Your brain knows that too, and mine is done with it (does it only hurt that “Top Gun: Maverick,” a genuinely great blockbuster also out now, eschews such tendencies? yes).

“Jurassic World: Dominion”

Universal Pictures

But that breach between the “real” and the “movie magic” feels even worse within the context of this franchise, which started with a film filled with genuine wonder. And while the subsequent films in the original franchise never, ever matched that joy and actual magic that Spielberg and company conjured up so expertly, I was hoping this new trilogy would somehow find its way back there. “Jurassic World” wasn’t horrible, but it was just retread, and despite all the big ideas it presented — and the possibility of turning wonder into terror — they’ve never been fully fleshed out in a way that screams, “this is a movie to see!”

Also disheartening: Colin Trevorrow’s stance on not simply presenting a film in which dinosaurs — now free! — run roughshod on the human population does actually feel scientifically sound. I totally understand his viewpoint and logic. But none of that adds up to an entertaining film, or even a franchise, worthy of the “Jurassic” name.

Or, put more plainly: what do you think of the film’s real bad guys, THE GIANT LOCUSTS?!

KOHN: The locusts looked like goth grasshoppers. “Tennis ball tension” is a great term that should be taped to the walls of VFX studios everywhere, because it’s a reminder of the contradiction tied to this kind of technologically-based spectacle: The more you can spend to make something look real, the faker it gets. You can practically see the pixels sparkling in the sunlight when those giant bugs speed through Texas. Film scholar Tom Gunning coined the term “cinema of attractions” to describe the kind of movie that delights or thrills us more than it tries to tell a cohesive story, but that potential is squandered when we can see the cracks in the design.

The only sequence that held mild intrigue for me was an action-packed showdown between most of the main cast and a giant dino that finds them climbing a ladder and teaming up to deter the attacks. There’s genuine choreography energized by a deft blend of camerawork and editing, even if it transforms Goldblum’s character into a macho action star out of nowhere. But so much of “Dominion” and its precedents hark back to Ian Malcolm’s ominous decree in the original about the people in charge being “so preoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

“Jurassic World: Dominion”

Universal Pictures

Look, none of this is surprising to me. I have rolled my eyes through a lot of bad blockbusters over the years. They come and go with the cold efficiency of tax season: Painful in the moment but easy enough to forget when they aren’t staring you in the face. Anyone remember “Prince of Persia”? “The Mummy”? But “Dominion” frustrates because it arrives at a moment when the global film industry needs every type of movie that contributes to the broader ecosystem to thrive, and instead it provides a reminder of why the system keeps shooting itself in the foot.

I watched this movie in the midst of making my way through the latest season of “Stranger Things,” which reportedly cost $30 million per episode. You can see the money on the screen, but not the substance, which is stretched out like silly putty to feature length in almost every episode. As long as we’ve had cinema, we’ve had special effects, and the potential to amaze audiences with narratives built around them. But at some point, this potential was equated with costliness, and the ability to throw money at the screen mucks up any question — or concern — about what’s being put there in the first place. Fix it in post, or don’t fix it all…who cares! The whole enterprise of modern blockbuster filmmaking reeks of indifference.

Georges Melies spent $10,000 francs on “A Trip to the Moon” in 1902 and we’re still talking about it 120 years later. I wouldn’t begin to predict what sort of moving image experience we’ll be talking about in 2142, but I reckon it won’t be “Jurassic World: Dominion.”

ERBLAND: Jeez, I hope it won’t be! As you mention, the timing on this is maybe the worst part, because yes, the global box office needs every hit it can find, and I am doubting that “Dominion” will follow in the steps of (again!) my current favorite, “Top Gun: Maverick,” and keep a happy and healthy second-week audience. People need to be reminded of the magic of the movies, but this film only reminded me of the facetiousness of them. I’m all for spectacle and whiz-bang, but that’s in short supply here, all whiz, no bang.

“Jurassic Park”

Part of that might be due to the last couple of years of in-home viewing, during which I’ve caught way back up on some of the wacky hits of the ‘80s and ‘90s, where CGI wasn’t de rigeur and real stunts reigned. My eyes changed, or maybe they just returned to the childlike wonder the movies used to inspire in me as but a tiny child. Whatever the case is, I’m tapped out on the fake stuff and, as so often happens in “Dominion,” when that’s paired with lacking emotion or coherency, I’m all the way done.

There is still absolutely a place for large-scale movies at the multiplex, hell, that might be the only place for them right now, but that shouldn’t mean that Hollywood should keep making the mistakes of “Dominion” and its ilk. As we’ve learned with every subsequent “Jurassic” film, even the most well-meaning of creative exercises can forever change the equilibrium of the world, and not for the better.

A Universal Pictures release, “Jurassic World: Dominion” is now in theaters.

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